Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another letter from Howard Griffin

I shared with you recently a letter I received in 1958 from my Texas neighbor, author John Howard Griffin. Howard had become blind because of a plane crash while in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific in 1946. His parents, Jack and Lena Griffin, moved from the city of Dallas out into the country, and it happened that they bought a farm on our lane. We were four families in all -- the Bragues, the Hugginses, the Griffins, and the Brocketts. Howard Griffin met a local girl, Elizabeth Ann Holland, and converted from Presbyterian to Roman Catholic in order to marry her. They had four children together before he suddenly regained his sight in 1957. In what had formerly been a barn at his parents’ place, Howard kept a writing studio equipped with a typewriter and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Sometimes he would drop by to chat while out riding his horse or walking with his beautiful collie dog.

Today I want to show you a letter Howard wrote to my mother in 1956 shortly before he regained his sight. I found it among her things after she died and have kept it all these years:

.................................................................Mansfield, Texas
.................................................................August 28, 1956

Dear Mrs. Brague,

We have just been visiting with Mrs. Brockett who told us the news of your forthcoming operation. Sitting out here in my studio tonight, working until very late, one thought keeps tormenting me. It is this:
I wonder if you have any idea what an inspiration you are to your neighbors, and how truly devoted to you we are? - even though people sometimes find great difficulty showing these things, or expressing them.

You have many silent rooters for your health and well being. Not just those in my immediate family - no; I am sure I speak for everyone whose llife in any way touches yours, even casually. Many a prayer goes up for you that you perhaps do not suspect. The good that you do all of us by your example is more far-reaching than you imagine. I hear it spoken of frequently by the townspeople.

I do not mean this to be a somber letter, nor do I wish to give you the embarrassment of an answer - so just tuck it away in your memory as a bit of information that needed saying. We have boundless admiration for your gallantry and courage - and sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be told those things which all of us feel but which few of us take the trouble to express.

We are very certain that the many and powerful prayers that are being said and the many and powerful wishes that are being formed for you augur well for the success of this operation; and that you have nothing to fear. I am certain of it, which is one of the reasons I am sitting here writing you this clumsy note.

I have sent out word to the Carmelite nuns - those wonderful women who spend their lives in prayer for others - to remember you especially at this time, as I did when you were hospitalized before. And I thought you might like to know that in convents all over this country and Europe your name is being spoken by people who ask the blessings of health and happiness for you, Bobby and Ted.

.................................................................Yours sincerely,


A little over a year later, on October 4, 1957, my mother died of abdominal cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fort Worth. I was 16. She was 47.

Howard died in 1980 at the age of 60.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Minimal, thanks, and you?

Here are two poems by William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Besides these two poems I also want to share with you an email I received about a woman whose computer password was “MickeyMinniePlutoHueyLouieDeweyDonaldGoofySacramento” and when asked why she chose that particular password she replied that the instructions said it must have eight characters and at least one capital. I personally think Indianapolis or Tallahassee is funnier than Sacramento but that may just be me. Also, for all readers outside the U.S., Sacramento is the capital of California, Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana, and Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, but if you pass this story along I suggest that you say Helsinki.

Why, yes, I am feeling much better. Why do you ask?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Air Force Blue

(Photo taken at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas, 1961)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Quiz post-mortem, or If you want me, just whistle

Out of my vast potential readership of 7.2 billion people on planet earth and a few on Uranus, a grand total of two people entered yesterday’s quiz. Thank you, Mary Z in Tennessee and Reamus in Southern California. Well, at least it wasn’t a complete bust.

To review, the question was to identify who said the following, and when, and why:

1. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” The correct answer is Gerald R. Ford on taking the oath of office as President of August 9, 1974, after Richard Nixon resigned. 100% of male respondents answered correctly. 100% of female respondents didn’t answer at all.

o 2. “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The correct answer is Ann Richards, then treasurer of the state of Texas and keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention (she would not become Governor of Texas until 1991) , referring to then Vice-President George H. W. Bush. Both respondents identified Ann Richards as the speaker but neither one got the occasion, although Mary thought it was in reference to George W. Bush (the son) .

3. “We’re going to take from the haves and give it to the have nots who need it so much.” Mary didn’t answer. Reamus said Dan Quayle (George H. W. Bush’s Vice-President) . The correct answer is President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking in 1964 of his Great Society programs.

4. “One, if by land, and two, if by sea; and I on the opposite shore will be, ready to ride and spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm.” Both respondents said Paul Revere, which may or may not be correct -- we don’t know exactly what he said. The answer I had in mind was poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the lines in “Paul Revere’s Ride (The Landlord’s Tale)” in 1860, 85 years after the actual 1775 ride.

5. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” Mary correctly identified the speaker as Prissy, in the movie Gone With the Wind. Reamus said Humphrey Bogart. Prissy was played by Butterfly McQueen. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t in Gone With the Wind but he was married to Lauren Bacall, which has to count for something.

6. “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” These words were correctly identified by 100% of our entrants as the final utterance of American Nathan Hale before he was hanged by the British during the American Revolution.

7. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Both Mary and Reamus said Admiral Dewey (it was not) ; Reamus said the Battle of Mobile Bay (it was) . Admiral Dewey was at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, where he said, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” At the Battle of Mobile Bay during the American Civil War, Admiral David Farragut uttered the lines in question.

8. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Both respondents correctly identified the speaker as FDR and the occasion as his first inaugural address in 1933.

9. “Nobody’s perfect.” Mary left no answer. Reamus said he and many others had said it. The answer I was looking for was actor Joe E. Brown to actor Jack Lemmon at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot.

10. “All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Both contestants correctly identified actress Gloria Swanson. Reamus wasn’t sure which movie it was and Mary said the movie was the original A Star Is Born. Close, but no cigar. The movie was the original Sunset Boulevard.

Mary, Reamus, and I have had a wonderful time wasting time with this quiz. I only wish that more of you had chosen to do so. I’ll think about that tomorrow. After all, as Humphrey Bogart once said to Lauren Bacall, tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Who said that? (A post-American-election quiz)

...And when? And why? (No fair peeking or Googling. You will receive extra points for creativity. Some questions may have two answers; pick the most accurate one.)

1. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

2. “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

3. “We’re going to take from the haves and give it to the have nots who need it so much.”

4. “One, if by land, and two, if by sea; and I on the opposite shore will be, ready to ride and spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm.”

5. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”

6. “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

7. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

8. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

9. “Nobody's perfect.”

10. "All right, Mr. Demille, I'm ready for my close-up.”

[Editor's note. Any similarity to anything I have ever said or written in the seven-year history of this blog is purely coincidental. --RWP]

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A portmanteau post

[Editor’s note. According to dictionary.com, a portmanteau word is a word composed of parts of two or more words, such as chortle (from chuckle and snort) and motel (from motor and hotel) . The term was first used by Lewis Carroll to describe many of the unusual words in his Through the Looking-Glass (1871), particularly in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Other authors who have experimented with such words are James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Since this post combines parts of two previous posts of mine (one from October 2013 and one from October 2012) , I have dubbed it a portmanteau post. --RWP]

Here is part of Burt’s Pumpkin Patch in Dawsonville, Georgia, which Mrs. RWP and I visited when Bob and Linda (my stepbrother and his wife) visited Georgia last year:

This post is for all you city people who never lived on a farm, and all you highly educated folks out there who probably think you’re better than everybody else but still could learn a thing or two.

The following poem by James Whitcomb Riley, which hearkens back to a simpler time and a more agrarian society, may be just what the doctor ordered:

When the Frost is on the Punkin
by James Whitcomb Riley (1849 - 1916)

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then the time a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here —
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock —
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries — kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below — the clover overhead! —
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don’t know how to tell it — but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin’ boardin', and they’d call around on me —
I’d want to ’commodate ’em — all the whole-indurin’ flock —
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

If I had to pick my favorite part of that poem besides the frost and the punkin and the fodder and the shock, it would have to be the rooster’s hallylooyer.

According to that Wikipedia article, Riley’s chief legacy was “his influence in fostering the creation of a midwestern cultural identity and his contributions to the Golden Age of Indiana Literature.” I don’t know about you but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Indiana Literature, let alone a whole Golden Age of It. It seems we all can still learn a thing or two.

James Whitcomb Riley was not one of the great poets, but he is an interesting one nonetheless. Back in the day, we had to read that poem in school and also his “Little Orphant Annie” with the warning at the end of each stanza that “the Gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out!” -- I thought you might like it as Halloween approaches.

If you feel you just can’t get enough of James Whitcomb Riley*, here is a link to 449 of his poems (he wrote more than a thousand, the majority in dialect) that should prove you wrong.

*here’s a shout-out to Pam Doyle, otherwise known as Hilltophomesteader, who (a) lives somewhere in southwestern Washington state and (b) has gone on record as really liking James Whitcomb Riley. Hi, Pam!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letter to a young man

I have in my possession a three-page typed letter from one Howard Griffin, a neighbor of mine in Texas, that he handed to me along with a book, The Collected Letters of Ludwig van Beethoven, the week I graduated from high school in 1958.

If the name Howard Griffin -- or as he is better known and his letterhead states, John H. Griffin -- seems familiar, it may be because he went on to write Black Like Me in 1961. He had also written The Devil Rides Outside in 1952 and Nuni in 1956, but Black Like Me is what brought him to the attention of a larger public.

It is a bit long, but I wanted to share this letter with you that was written to a 17-year-old boy from a man in his late thirties, married with children. I have kept it now for 56 years.

.................................................................May 17, 1958

Dear Bobby,

.....This is perhaps an unwanted intrusion of advice, but at this time in your life, and out of my respect for you, there are a few things I wanted to tell you. Although I have had little contact with you, I have been concerned about you for many years; certainly because it is rare to encounter a first class mind, and you have one. You also have something even more important, a sensitivity and creativity that can make that mental equipment fruitful. Perhaps you yourself do not even recognize this yet.

.....Such people have a problem which few others understand or even know exists. I know that you feel alone in this for certainly you have felt the beginnings already. It is a subtle thing, perhaps too subtle to formulate. Without false humility, you recognize that you have superior equipment, and you also recognize that you have a grave responsibility to use that equipment fruitfully, not to waste it by following the crowd and becoming ordinary; and again not to waste it in fruitless experimentation or in seeking to gratify your ego by demanding that you yourself prove what great minds have already proved. Understanding first principles is correct; seeking to re-establish them becomes a presumption on which many fine minds fritter themselves out.

.....Our civilization has a dangerous tendency to brand everything which is not “average” as “abnormal.” Our colleges are permeated with a spirit of standardization that seeks to make men “average.” It is evident that to be average and to be truly normal are vastly different things. Seeking true normalcy does not mean following a standardized pattern, it means fulfilling one’s potential.

.....This, highly simplified, is the problem you are beginning to know. It will grow more acute. This is what makes for loneliness. It is terribly easy these days to lose sight of this, to be driven toward what is “average” rather than what is truly “normal.” To be normal requires all of the intellectual and spiritual virtues, to be average requires nothing more than a deadening acceptance of social standards which petrify the soul and compromise the intellect. It is basically the difference between expediency values that fluctuate according to what is convenient and acceptable, and absolute values based on what is immutably right (regardless of convenience or rationalized acceptability.)

.....You will go one of two ways now. You will either go toward normalcy (in the philosophical sense) where soul and intellect remain wedded and in close contact with reality, where your gifts will be liberated and given full sway to grow and enrich the world. Or you will, for want of an example of the proper encouragement (or because splendid and sterile minds will lead you that way) go toward what is average, no matter how brilliant it may appear to be. In this realm, the mind learns to rationalize to its own satisfaction rather than submit itself humbly to truth or reason. In this there is a separation between soul and mind, a divorce. In this we learn to act from motives of social approbation (even under the guise of morality) rather than from motives of love for higher values. In a word, we become dedicated to ourselves rather than to higher values. This produces a certain brilliant sheen -- we see it constantly for it is very fashionable; it is the superb mind which has become gluttonous and presumptuous; which feeds on itself rather than on reality. It is one of the great obscene tragedies that can happen to a man. All is done, in this instance, for the good of the man rather than for the good of a higher value.

.....This, in a word, will be your great temptation. You could easily go that way. We hunger for approval, all of us. Perfection in a given field, mastery of a given art, dedication to a given value -- these are hard things, rightfully so. No man has ever dared enter these worlds, whether scientific or artistic, without trembling and dread; for this means self-renunciation on a heroic basis. There is great private loneliness. A man has to seek his way in these realms utterly alone, maintaining complete independence of spirit insofar as the world’s opinions are concerned and at the same time, complete humility and respect for the value to which he is dedicating himself. This way ultimately leads to greatness and must eventually benefit the world. The other way, the way of the brilliant average leads to more immediate satisfactions, but also to grave frustrations unless the person completely deadens his soul against reminders of “what might have been.”

.....The only ultimate freedom, therefore, comes in voluntary slavery to a higher value.

.....This will be your big problem, as it is the problem of all men, and especially of highly gifted men. To see it clearly is half the battle. This does not mean that we should rebel -- rebellion is a form of egotism. This means that, as Pascal said, we must live among men and yet live alone, and that we must sacrifice ourselves out of love for them and the higher value; that our creations, scientific, scholastic or artistic do them more good than our preachments. The saint has always taught more by his example than all the tomes of theology. True normalcy, in its final analysis is synonymous to true sanctity in arts, sciences or scholasticism.

.....Symptoms that we are going the wrong way, even while persuading ourselves that we are going the right and dedicated way are these: if we have contempt for lesser men; if we feel arrogance for them then we are merely deluding ourselves. The motive for our actions then is one of hatred or repugnance, fleeing into another world to escape the vulgarities of this one. No, we must be drawn to that other world by love. That is the essential difference.

.....Another grave mistake, commonly made because men must blunder toward their own truths without too much guidance and help, is to think that dedication to a higher value implies “rising above reality.” In perfecting our tastes, we often tend to mistake values and to see as ugly what God created as good. We develop a certain contempt for that which is animal in man and for that which is of the earth. This is often carried to such extremes that it becomes a total delusion wherein “high type” men feel themselves “dragged down” by their very natures. This again is an enormous presumption -- it is not being spiritual, but in reality it is having contempt for God’s creation of man and nature. In moments of supreme tension, pain and death, men have always seen clearly the error of this tangential refinement -- they have seen that they have missed everything by refusing to go into the essences of all things, no matter how humble; by refusing to have affection for all elements of living. The saints have always known that it is good to have hunger and to eat, to have fatigue and to rest, to have work and then to have the good relaxation of pleasure. The other attitude is so obviously foolish and wrong, it hardly seems worthwhile to mention it, but it is too commonplace and dangerous an error not to be forewarned against.

.....You will, no matter what you do or where you go, feel the downdrag of lesser values espoused by most men. All I hope to do in this letter is to help you see this one fact clearly, to recognize it and not be dismayed by it. That is the average. What is important is not to be average, for the average is full of vanity and compromise and temporal logic. What is important is to be normal. The difference is ultimately simple -- it lies in whether one has a greater receptivity to merely pleasure dispensing values (as the average) or whether one has a greater receptivity to happines dispensing values (which indicates true normalcy) . It is possible that pleasure dispensing values can also be happiness dispensing values -- and this is safe and good. When pleasure dispensing values are not happiness dispensing values, then the choice must always be made; and this choice will depend on the depth of true culture possessed by the person who makes that choice.

.....I hope these observations will make you less lonely when you face these decisions. We must have faith that if we work hard enough, respect mastery, dedicate ourselves selflessly enough, some result will accrue, even though that result may not be clear to us. As Beethoven said in the book I am giving you: “Let your motive be the deed and not the result.”


...................................................(Here he wrote “Howard” in black ink)

.................................................................John Howard Griffin

P.S. No need to embarrass yourself acknowledging this letter. If I can ever help you in any way, call on me.